$3.73 million federal grant awarded to Case Western Reserve-led education alliance

Program designed to produce more minority students with doctoral degrees in STEM

CWRU students working in a robotics lab
CWRU students working in a robotics lab

In the last decade, national attention has increasingly focused on improving the path to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers—especially for minority students significantly underrepresented in the STEM workforce and academia.

Specifically, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program is designed to overcome obstacles and increase the number of underrepresented minorities (URMs) completing STEM doctoral degrees and possibly becoming university professors.

Toward that goal, the NSF has awarded a $3.73 million grant to the Northern Ohio AGEP Alliance (NOA-AGEP) for research directed by Case Western Reserve University and involving the six other alliance-member institutions. The 42-month project, to recruit and guide talented URM students through graduate work and research, begins this month.

“We believe this consortium will be transformative in multiple ways, for diversity in Northern Ohio, for workforce development in science and engineering and, most importantly, for the careers of the graduate students in the programs,” said Lynn Singer, Case Western Reserve’s deputy provost and vice president for academic affairs and professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, pediatrics, psychiatry and psychology.

With the new round of funding, NOA-AGEP will develop and study a model to improve URM student participation, preparation and success in STEM graduate education—an approach that will involve all participating institutions and, hopefully, provide an approach that can be replicated nationally. The alliance will study the model’s ability to prepare students for graduate research and maintain or increase their interest in becoming STEM professors.

“Case Western Reserve will recruit six underrepresented minority PhD students (30 total across the seven NOA-AGEP institutions), selected from biological sciences, chemistry and engineering, to be admitted in fall 2016,” said Charles Rozek, vice provost and dean of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs at Case Western Reserve. “They will be designated as AGEP Scholars.”

Rozek is the NSF grant’s principal investigator. Singer and Marilyn Sanders Mobley, the university’s vice president for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity and an English professor, are co-principal investigators.

The NOA-AGEP partnership includes: Case Western Reserve, Bowling Green State University, Cleveland State University, Kent State University, University of Akron, University of Toledo and Youngstown State University.

The study also involves Tuskegee University in Alabama and Central State University near Dayton. At Tuskegee, graduate engineering students will be mentored and participate in summer exchange programs with member institutions in Northern Ohio. Some AGEP Scholars will also spend time conducting research at Tuskegee.

At Central State, undergraduate students will participate in a two-year summer research “bridge” program at NOA-AGEP institutions, which will prepare them to enter graduate programs in STEM fields.

Producing sufficient numbers of graduates who are prepared for STEM occupations has become a national priority as a strategy to compete internationally. The shortage is especially acute among minority populations.

“Increased URM participation in advanced STEM education and training is critical for supporting the development of a diverse professional STEM workforce,” said NSF Program Director Mark Leddy, “especially a diverse STEM faculty who serve as the intellectual, professional, personal, and organizational role models that shape the expectations of future scientists and engineers.”

Of more than 35,000 doctorate degrees awarded by colleges and universities nationally in science and engineering in 2012, 3.9 percent were awarded to Hispanic or Latino students, 2.7 percent to African-American students and 0.2 percent to Native Americans, according to NSF’s most recent analysis.

In fall 2013, of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, 79 percent were white, 6 percent African-American, 5 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“One of the biggest challenges in higher education is the lack of diversity in the professoriate in STEM fields and other disciplines, even as campuses become more diverse,” Mobley said. “Awards such as the AGEP help institutions address the current lack of role models in the classroom for underrepresented groups who want to be scientists and who want to teach and provides support for them to make a difference in meeting these challenges.”

In addition to student support programs, signature activities at each university will be shared, including several CWRU programs in professional development and institutional engagement.

As part of the study, a research team led by Diana Bilimoria, KeyBank Professor and Chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior at CWRU’s Weatherhead School of Management, will assess how inclusive and supportive the program is for URM students working toward earning STEM doctoral degrees and becoming professors.